What better than a hot hatch to make up for the many miles of driving we’ve missed during lockdown?
Andrew Frankel Autocar
19 August 2020

Why we’re running it: In the absence of a new RS, is the latest Focus ST good enough to be considered a credible flagship fast Ford hatchback?

Month 2Month 1 - Specs

Life with a Ford Focus ST: Month 2

Which is more fun on a mountain road, an NSX or our hot Ford? - 12 August 2020

An interesting, if impromptu test. I had an appointment with the newly revised Honda NSX and it occurred to me that within the broad confines of what may loosely be described as ‘driver’s cars’, you could get further apart than these, but not much.

One is a mid-engined supercar costing £170,000 and has four-wheel drive, three electric motors to supplement its V-formation engine and a paddle-shift gearbox. The other is a front-engine, front-drive hatch with manual transmission and under half the power and costs less than a fifth of the money. Just how humiliated would my poor old Focus ST feel by comparison on a really great road?

The NSX was flashingly fast in a straight line, had a very pleasant engine yowl and, when it came to the corners, it gripped and gripped and gripped. Its damping control is genuinely outstanding and, by the time I’d flung it across the mountain road and returned, I was full of admiration for it. It is a genuinely impressive, massively competent and very thoroughly engineered car.

But here’s the thing: this £30k Ford is simply more fun to drive.

Surprised? You should have seen my face. But I got into it straight after the NSX and drove it at the same effort level on the same route in the same conditions, and this is what I found.

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Ford Focus ST 2019 road test - hero front

Expectations are high for Ford’s latest family-sized hot hatch. Can it live up to them?

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I didn’t covet the NSX’s performance as much as I enjoyed the Ford’s eagerness for the open road. When a truck came the other way, I’d lift in the Honda just to give me a little more time to judge the gap. In the Focus, my foot stayed down. In the NSX – and in this respect, I could be describing any modern supercar – I felt I was always using only a fraction of the available ability.

You can’t hold the throttle open for long before unspeakable numbers start to appear on the dial – nor can you sensibly get anywhere near the limit in almost every corner. You feel you’re sampling about 30% of what the car has to offer. In the Ford, it’s nearer 80%. In the corners, you play with the car’s attitude with the throttle pedal, while in a straight line you are entrusted with the task of changing gears all by yourself. Imagine that…

I’m not saying the Focus ST is a more capable car than an NSX: it’s not and it’d be ludicrous to suggest it were. But it is more involving, and I think for those who love to drive, that is a more important consideration.

Back in the more real world, the ST is getting on with daily driving reasonably well. I like that I can fling my telephone into the central cubbyhole and it just starts charging, but the cheapness of the interior is starting to irk slightly. It’s just a bit too rough around the edges inside.

Love it:

Uncompromised fun Great chassis adjustability, unlimited enthusiasm for the open road but still a great daily driver.

Loathe it:

Some cabin materials Cheap interior plastics are a price worth paying if it means the money saved is spent on making it fun. But I still don’t like ’em.

Mileage: 1566

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A leak that wasn’t - 29 July 2020

It was a colleague who alerted me to a steady drip of water from the Focus’s rear exhaust box. Even I know that’s not a particularly good sign. Water is meant to circulate the engine, not travel through it and exit via the pipes. Happily, as soon as the engine was warm, the drip stopped. Condensation in the pipe – no more, no less. And I breathe again.

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Mileage: 1311

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The future is orange, but is it bright? We check in at the 1000-mile mark - 22 July 2020

Now that the 1000th mile has rolled under the Focus ST’s elegant 19in rims, a few preliminary thoughts – some, all or none of which may be modified, contradicted or confirmed as the months elapse.

Firstly, and I guess most importantly, it feels like the kind of car that I want a fast Ford to be. Which means it’s more than just fast. It has urgency and attitude, too. It’s not a suave sophisticate like a hot Volkswagen Golf, and nor is it intended to be. Its suspension is notably firm, which would be properly problematic were its movements not so expertly controlled by some exquisite dampers. I want to find out more about them and will over time, and indeed the Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tyres it wears, which my early outings suggest might be very special indeed.

The only interesting journey it has done to date is a cross-country run to Malvern for me to drive Morgan’s new Plus Four and not-quite-so-new Plus Six – and it remains instructive how, despite the fundamental issues of uneven weight distribution and front-wheel drive, a well-developed hatchback can be just as much fun to drive as a classic front/mid-engined, rear-wheel-drive sports car with double-wishbone front suspension.

I gave it a bit of a squirt on the way back, although still within the spirit of the running-in guidance, and was surprised not only by the response of the engine but also its surprisingly tuneful voice. Someone has thought hard about that.

But I’m hoping it starts to use less fuel as the motor loosens up. At the moment, any attempt at even slightly brisk driving drops the average MPG down to the mid-20s, and even if you’re just cruising at the legal limit on the motorway, about 35mpg is about the best you can expect.

If there’s a disappointment, it’s the interior, which looks somewhat downmarket compared with its most plush rivals, although no-one could fault the amount of standard equipment that’s loaded on the ST.

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It all works reasonably well, too; there are just too many cheap hard plastics in there. Even so, these early weeks have proven promising. Next time I report, I’ll have a far better understanding of its capabilities.

Love it:

Promising chassis Grippy and exceptionally damped, yet with more-thanacceptable ride quality.

Loathe it:

Downmarket cabin This may be a £33,660 car, but the interior quality is that of one costing half as much.

Mileage: 1211

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Life with a Focus ST: Month 1

Welcoming the Focus ST to the fleet - 8 July 2020

I have been a fan of fast Fords for as long as I’ve known how to drive, a fact I owe almost entirely to my mate Ben. He was a somewhat better-resourced teenager than I, which meant that while I chugged about the place in a long succession of aged, arthritic rusting wrecks that were dead slow even when new, Ben had a Ford Fiesta XR2. The original: white paint, round headlights, pepper-pot wheels and low-profile tyres. I was hooked from the moment I drove it.

Of course, the fortunes of rapid Ford hatchbacks have ebbed and flowed over the years, but I think the company has been consistently good of late at producing a successful string of cars that combine speed, response and just a touch of back-to-basics honesty just in case you were ever likely to forget that, above all, these are cars of the people. So I’m looking forward to the months to come behind the wheel of this new and quite exceptionally orange Focus ST.

Anyone who’s paid attention to the long-termers I’ve run on these pages for the last many years will notice they’ve all had very sober colours in common: dark blues and greys mainly. This is not a coincidence: I have no desire to be noticed driving any car at all. I can remember swapping a BMW i8 for a 911 a few years back and delighting in the anonymity the Porsche provided.

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Well, I’m clearly not going to be getting any of that here. But I guess if you’re going for an outrageous colour, you might as well go the whole way, and it might as well be on a fast Ford. Needless to say, however, this was not a colour I chose – it just came that way. Indeed, I had no choice in the spec at all other than to insist the car came with petrol rather than diesel power, hatchback rather than estate bodywork and manual instead of automatic gears.

So when it turned up and I started to push and prod about, I was startled by the amount of goodies and gadgets that had been loaded onto it, everything from radar-controlled cruise control to a heated steering wheel. Ford press cars used to be known by journalists as ‘Bob Wright Specials’ thanks to aforementioned (and quite brilliant) Ford press fleet man’s predilection for loading his cars with every available option, so I thought this ST might be some kind of tribute act to the recently retired Bob. But no: it’s all standard.

I’ll talk more about this at greater length a little bit further down the line. In the meantime, be advised that, orange ‘Fury’ paint aside, the only actual options this car carries are a wireless charging pad and Ford’s Performance pack, which provides launch control, a track mode, rev-matched downshift and an upshift indicator, all for a piffling £250. The car had only done 150 miles by the time it arrived, almost all accrued on its way from Ford’s UK head office in Essex to my home in the Welsh borders, so it will be a while before I get to drive it in the way I suspect it will shortly beg to be driven. And I’m fascinated by the powertrain.

The engine is a four-cylinder unit, but sourced from America where it’s more usually found in the entry-level Mustang. Its 276bhp output sounds rather modest, particularly when you consider its 2.3-litre capacity – remember Mercedes is now blasting way more than 400bhp from just 2.0 litres – but the devil appears to be in the detail.

A low-inertia twin-scroll turbo promises rapid response and more torque than some far more powerful competitors, including the Honda Civic Type R, the Mercedes-AMG A35 and the Volkswagen Golf R. It also has a form of anti-lag technology on it, where the airflow into the engine can be held open for up to three seconds after the driver lifts off, meaning the turbo compressor wheel is not slowed. And then there’s the differential, which is effectively an e-diff: open most of the time as you would want, but capable of locking up and sending half the power to each front wheel to maximise traction.

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This, then, seems to be much more than just another rapid hatchback. It may look somewhat garish but deep down it seems that engineers have thought hard about how a car like this should behave on the road and not just gone down the headline-grabbing route, which, with the power that engine could clearly deliver, they could easily have done.

So far, and thanks to Covid-19, it’s only done short local journeys, but as the country opens up, so will its horizons be peeled back. What will it be like to live with relative to, say, a Golf R? How will its handling compare with the aforementioned Civic? Will the already obvious cheapness of some of the cabin fitments make me wish I’d gone for an A35 instead?

I have no better idea than you what the answers to all these questions might be. But I’m already looking forward to finding out.

Second Opinion

The last Ford Focus we had on our fleet was a vision of anonymity. It was an ST-Line model, free of the lurid paint and associated frippery of Andrew’s full-fat ST. I’m excited to find out how its excellent poise is heightened in ST form – even if it does mean drawing attention to myself. 

James Attwood

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Ford Focus ST specification

Specs: Price New £32,510 Price as tested £33,660 Options  Orange Fury paint £800, Ford Performance pack £250, wireless charging £100

Test Data: Engine 4 cyls, 2261cc, turbocharged, petrol Power 276bhp at 5500rpm Torque 310lb ft at 3000-4000rpm Gearbox 6-spd manual Kerb weight 1468kg Top speed 155mph 0-62mph 5.7sec Fuel economy 34.4mpg CO2 179g/km Rivals Volkswagen Golf GTI, Renault Mégane RS, Honda Civic Type R

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Comments
4

26 July 2020

Thanks for sharing such an interesting car reviews. So informative 

11 August 2020
Any chance of a review of the model with the automatic gearbox? I'd really like to know how it compares.

11 August 2020

have been drastically reduced, when the monthly report of a long term test is a presence of water dripping from the exhaust.. Did Andrew Frankel actually drive the car and write this, or was it the office junior? 

20 August 2020

Fiesta XR2, why? The whole point of a car like this is driver engagement! 

The fact that an automatic st exists is deeply worrisome to me, the manual gearbox is an endangered species; just try buying a 3 series without an auto box, you won’t get beyond a 318d saloon.

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